Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Life has moved at a frenetic, caps-locked pace ever since I added Shaq to my Twitter, but I've been experiencing immense inner peace after finding someone who could translate Korean TV commercials for me. For months, I sat there every night mesmerized by the woman who sips orange juice in ecstasy, the man who talks to a koala, and the androgynous model who mysteriously says "uncle?" Some of them don't really need translating, like the one with the beautiful girls eating fried chicken and singing "one five eight-eight, nine-two, nine-two!" The best ones do need translation, like the male model curiously posing, though translation removes all the wonder.

The moral of the story here is that if you're still buying skin lotion and some other product separately, you must be an old man. I liked it better when I thought he just mysteriously raised his eyebrow and the commercial was a complete cipher. That's the case because a language you don't understand is a lot like music. Some words are just nice to hear, even if they have ordinary meanings. When it comes to Korean, I really enjoy hearing "if you'd like" in a polite, formal voice, along with "this train", "okay" when a waiter says it, the time when it's 11 or 12 o'clock, right (as in the direction), and the number 8.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

As the school term draws to a close, I thought I would write something about my favourite students, starting in chronological order from the start of my day. I'll begin with Steve. Steve is 5 years old and is generally in love with his stylish hair, which used to be permed and is now long and straight, making him look like he's in a Korean boy band. I sit next to him everyday for lunch, and we have conversations like the following:

A: Hey, Steve, do you want more rice?
S: No, no, rice today, it is the yummy!
A: Uh huh.
S: Yes, yes, more rice today! [Unintelligible]
S: Whaaaaa! Whooooo! This is a vegetable today!
A: What? That makes no sense.
S: Yeah! I'm going to [unintelligible] today.

There's really not much reason to like Steve, especially since he's liable to start crying at any second for any reason. Last week he cried because he didn't want to eat the potato salad in his lunch.

In the same class is Emily, who is impossibly cute and tiny, but despite having been at the school for three months, almost never speaks. When she does, she calls me Ms. Adeel and communicates mostly by whispering. One day after lunch, she came up to me, indicated that it was something very important, and whispered "thank you Mr. Adeel" in my ear. Usually, though, she communicates by banging on the table like an impatient businessman whose drink is empty.

Then I have Daniel and Matthew, who are roly-poly 6-year-olds that are roughly the same size as me. They're my favourite students at the entire school, mostly because they're very smart and loud. Daniel claims to be about 70 lbs, and I believe it. I think. He likes to have conversations at the top of his lungs, begin each sentence with the word "AND" and periodically interrupt class to empty his sinuses in the sink. When he gets confused or excited, he pulls up his shirt to scratch or stroke his massive pot belly.

Matthew is probably a better student than Daniel. He's cuter, better behaved and does better work, but he's not nearly as entertaining. Daniel's high-decibel ramblings about his baby sister ("my baby") or various other go-nowhere stories that conclude with a sad "I don't know..." get stuck in my head, but Matthew's don't. Matthew has been big on inviting myself and his morning teacher to his house to play Nintendo Wii ("my house go and Nintendo Wii play"). As yet, the invitation remains unfilled. Instead, he hugs my legs and tries to kiss me too often for my taste.

Full disclosure: Matthew is exceptionally cute when he cries. When he cries, I like to let it go on for my amusement.

Last but not least are Tim and Frank. Tim is a 9-year-old that I teach twice a week. He speaks almost no English, but his chubbiness (imagine a Korean Pillsbury doughboy), attention to detail and comical drawings (his mom apparently looks like him with a ponytail taped to the back of her head) won my heart. One day, I achieved my longstanding goal of poking him in the belly when demonstrating the difference between 'chest' and 'stomach'. One day, and one day only, Tim spoke up in class and said that "San is a very dirty, dirty boy". Most of the time, he can't even tell me what he ate for lunch.

Frank is 4 years old and isn't even my student, but if you don't love Frank, you don't have a heart. As I explained to a Korean teacher, Frank is not really a name that anyone under the age of 50 has. Fortunately for Frank, he looks like a middle-aged man compacted into the body of an eccentric 4-year-old. He makes baby sounds at me whenever I see him and unlike most of his knee-high classmates, isn't terrified of my dark skin and deep voice. The high point for Frank was the day he wore a shirt and tie along with a cardigan, and even had his hair combed in a nerdy side part. I figured he was going to try out for an opening in Weezer, but it was actually a meeting at his dad's office.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why is it okay to make up a country in Africa? The current season of 24, the only fictitious television program endorsed by AWYHIGTC, features a fictitious African country named Sangala. Presumably a portmanteau of Senegal and Angola, Sangala is facing an imminent US invasion to prevent genocide and restore its exiled president to power. This is even more egregious than the plothole wherein a faction that can not even control its own country has the ability to take over the mythically powerful computer system of the United States.

You see, there is something called a "CIP device", and this allows anyone with a Dell and enough RAM to take over water treatment plants, air traffic controls and God knows what else. This, of course, is because the people that designed the impenetrable computer systems of the world's most powerful country were stupid enough to link it all together. It's possible that they learned computer programming from Inspector Gadget's niece Penny and her magic computer book.

The idea of making up a country in a television show that otherwise strives to be realistic is absurd and mildly racist. A fictious country named Bolividesh somewhere on the Asian or South American landmass would be absurd, as would one in Europe called Moldova, Andorra or Azerbaijan--oh, right. Putting a made-up country next to Germany or America or China would received well-deserved ridicule.

Granted, Africa has some countries that only gazetteer conventioneers would have heard of: Guinea-Bissau, Swaziland, Eritrea, Gabon, Cape Verde and my personal favourite, the Central African Republic. Still, there would be nothing wrong or offensive about using a real African country as the backdrop for the cliche civil war playing out in Sangala. There are 53 countries to choose from after all, from Angola and Algeria all the way to Zambia and Zimbabwe. After involving Russia and China in very serious plots, do the writers at 24 really have worries about offending Lesothans?

Indeed, the writers at 24 went out and picked a small town named Kidron, Ohio for death by gas leak. The same courtesy could not be extended to Africa, presumably because Africans are all interchangeable for the most part, and the difference between a real country and a fake one is negligible. When it comes to America, even a town with 1,000 people needs to be real. Americans should treat the less-famous countries of Africa better because, believe it or not, 92% of Central Africans and 87% of Malawians have a favourable view of the US government, roughly double that of actual Americans at the time of the poll.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And this week's sign that we live in the 21st century: a Bollywood music video subtitled in German. There is perhaps no greater contrast to the over-the-top absurdity (the song's name translates to "Speak, bangles!") of an Indian movie than its being translated into the gruffness and business-like tone of German. For example, "hai, mein hogaya tera sajana" means "Oh, I became your beloved", but comes out respectably in German: "klingt das wie: ich bin dein". I like to learn something everyday.

Anyway, enjoy, especially if you're female and get to gaze at Hrithik Roshan for almost 7 minutes.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

As I learn more and more Korean, I think there are some things that are easier to say in Korean than in English. Of course, it's also the case that there are some phrases in English that I haven't said in six months ("how much is it?", "excuse me", etc.). Still, the advantages of Korean are obvious, especially on the phone. Consider the following conversation in English:

A: Hello?
B: Hey, how's it going?
A: Good, how are you?
B: Good, where are you?
A: I'm at home, what about you?
B: Me too. Want to get something to eat?
A: Sure. How about Thai? There's that new restaurant by where I work.
B: Sounds good, see you there.

Here's how it goes in Korean, roughly speaking, pun intended:

A: Yeoboseyo (hello)
B: Yeobosyeo
A: Eodi-yaaaaa? (where are you?)
B: Jib-aeseo (I'm at home)
A: Grunt
B: Grunt
A: Grunt
B: Grunt
A: Grunt
B: Grunt
A: Grunt
B: Grunt
A: Nae (okay)
B: Grunt

Friday, February 06, 2009

There are a few other jobs I'd like to have in Korea, even if they don't pay as well as my job. For a long time, taxi driver was at the top of the list. I'd really like to drive around in a shiny car that smells faintly of the many, many cigarettes I smoke, engage in idle conversation and dispense change from a massive stick of crisp ₩1,000 notes I keep on the odometer. Optional white gloves and a tiny little TV that lets me keep up on dramas while driving at night would seal the deal. Of course, for this to be possible, I'd need to be able to say left-turn correctly, which is tough for me at the moment, learn which buildings are landmarks and which are completely unimportant, and improve at making idle chit-chat with other middle-aged men.

I'd also like to have the job, good for three out of the four seasons, where you park your truck at an intersection and sell whole chickens (supposedly stuffed with rice) for $6, or two for $10. There's something about the idea of setting up shop for the night and casually selling chicken to passersby that, all while smoking cigarette after cigarette, that I find very relaxing and appealing.

My dream, however, is to be a grocery store propagandist. The grocery store propagandist sounds like a crazy man announcing fiery, revolutionary slogans over the grocery store public address system. "Long live the Republic of Korea and its Dear Leader Lee Myung-bak!" I imagine him shouting. For the most part, his voice stays calm but urgent. Every now and then, however, his voice attains the sort of frenetic tone you might have if being strangled by a gang of muggers. "QUICKLY! QUICKLY! COME HERE!" he cries. "QUICKLY! QUICKLY! THREE DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS! RIGHT NOW! THREE DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS FOR THE GRAPES! COMEONRIGHTNOWTHEGRAPESAREJUSTTHREEDOLLARSANDFIFTYCENTSAND YOUABSOLUTELYMUSTCOMERIGHTNOWORELSE THESEKIDSAREGOINGTOWRINGMYNECK!" In the enusing panic, all you can hear or think about is what this man is selling, and you definitely want it, whatever it is. Like angry waves crashing into a rocky shore, or like the ineloquence of a hack writer channeling Homer, the crescendo rises and falls automatically. Today, everything was quiet until I heard him shouting at the top of his lungs about spinach for 50 cents. Whatever the case, life is always exciting for the grocery store propagandist.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Today I ran 18 km and started to read a book on Greek philosophy. If you know me well, these two acts more or less defined me for the last four years ("Oh God, he's either going to talk about how far he ran or how akon is actually a Greek word meaning unwilling"). Lately, finally making more than $200 a month and free of university tuition, I've found myself indulging in $6 whole pizzas and $8 cafe mochas, not to mention a limitless stream of Law and Order (the SVU variety).

After six months in Korea, I've mostly forgotten just how it is that I ended up here and, to some extent, become a different person. My days are a constant blur of eating confectionery products, trying to make sense of the Korean I hear around me and laughing at the Korean habit of adding a "y" to words ending in consonants, thereby turning them into adjectives (things can be lunchy, churchy, Englishy, finishy). Of course, my days back home were a constant blur of eating confectionery products and trying to make sense of the English around me, but I've turned my time here into a neverending vacation, treating a year-long stay as a short-term vacation. This would certainly explain my ambivalence towards cleaning my apartment.

Beginning with a crossword on Tuesday and continuing through today, I'm slowly reclaiming my life, or whatever the appropriate cliche might be for the solution. Still, there's a vast disconnect between life here and the reality of taxes, student loans and job prospects back home. Just about anyone under 300 lbs, with the right colour skin (it was iffy for me in a few cases) and a university degree can get here in 6 weeks, and completely forget about whatever it was they did back home. Life in Korea becomes sufficiently encompassing that you tend to forget where you came from and what you do there for a while.

I came to Korea because I applied to grad schools and came up a Buffalo Bills-like 0-for-6. My plan after that was to spend a year or two teaching overseas and then try to make a living as a journalist, and it still is. There are many opportunities for anyone with a few half-baked ideas and access to an email account to submit articles to Korean English-language newspapers, which would be a logical first step. Much like how I signed up for a March marathon in December and then more or less stopped running for six weeks, or the time I skipped a lecture on weakness of will because it was raining, I wrote about a half dozen articles and kept them to myself instead. Once again, I find myself doing the complete opposite of what I need to be doing. After spending four years studying how I should live my life, this is vexing if not surprising.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I've always liked Kurt Warner. Even when he was lauded with syrupy nonsense during the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf heyday of a decade ago, I couldn't believe how good of a passer he was. For his ability to throw early and often, as well as deep, I think only Peyton Manning is better. He is accurate (65% completion rate, second all-time) and throws deep (8 yards per attempt). Warner has had the misfortune of playing on two teams that were not good enough to win the Super Bowl, of not entering the NFL until 27, and of injuries in the middle of his career. Besides that, he has played in three Super Bowls and come up as big as possible, throwing for 414, 377 and 365 yards. With a little bit of luck, he would have won three Super Bowls and three superb Super Bowl performances.

It's sad that he has only played 5 full seasons and started so late, because in better circumstances, he might have well become the greatest ever. As it is, his story is remarkable. He went to University of Northern Iowa, a Division I-AA school, and was the third-stringer for his first three years. He went undrafted and only became a starter because there was no one else on a team that had won 3 years the year before. He led his team to a Super Bowl out of nowhere and, as quickly as he had appeared, disappeared into thin air, only to rise again, quite appropriately, in Phoenix. The entire thing seems like a football remake of The Natural, like a tasteful version of Angels in the Endzone.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The most interesting thing I read today is the recently-deceased John Updike's 1999: Looking Back Now, depicting how the late twentieth-century might be perceived at the end of the twenty-first.